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13 people released from prison after Washington drug possession law struck down

A Washington State Supreme Court ruling struck down a portion of state law that makes simple drug possession a crime.

OLYMPIA, Wash. — Editor's note: The video above about lawmakers wanting to focus on treatment, instead of punishment, aired on March 16.

Thirteen people convicted of drug possession charges under a law struck down by the state Supreme Court were released from Department of Corrections custody after Gov. Jay Inslee signed commutations for them.

More commutations are expected in response to petitions, with Inslee expected to sign at least two more on Tuesday. 

Earlier in April, Inslee offered commutations to individuals in Department of Corrections custody if they were there on simple drug possession convictions. 

The release of the incarcerated people follows a decision by the state Supreme Court in February to strike down a portion of state law that makes simple drug possession a crime. A majority of the justices said the law was unconstitutional because it did not require prosecutors to prove someone knowingly or intentionally was in possession of illegal substances. 

The ruling came in the case of a Spokane woman who had received a pair of jeans from a friend that had a small bag of methamphetamine in a pocket. Five justices said the state law was unconstitutional because it criminalized her passive, unknowing conduct, in violation of her due process protections. Another justice would have overturned the woman's conviction by interpreting the law as requiring proof that the drugs were possessed intentionally.

Lawyers say a Washington Supreme Court decision striking down the state's felony drug possession law could result in tens or hundreds of thousands of convictions being vacated.

It could also mean shorter sentences for many current prisoners doing time for other crimes if past drug possession convictions boosted their offender scores.  

Inslee said he is working to quickly facilitate the immediate release of people who are currently in custody solely on simple drug possession crimes.  

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